May 29, 2009 / 5:33 PM / in 8 years

Pollution may contribute to rise in liver disease

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Pollutants may be contributing to a sharp increase in the number of cases of liver disease, U.S. researchers said on Friday.

They said as many as a third of U.S. adults showed signs of having liver disease not caused by normal triggers such as alcohol abuse and viral hepatitis.

While obesity is the primary driver of the increase, environmental pollution also may play a role, according to Dr. Matthew Cave of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, who is presenting his findings this weekend at the Digestive Disease Week conference in Chicago.

"Our study shows that some of these cases may be attributable to environmental pollution, even after adjusting for obesity, which is another major risk factor for liver disease," Cave said in a statement.

Cave and colleagues studied the role of chemicals in liver disease in 4,500 people who took part in a 2003-2004 national health and nutrition study.

They examined chronic low-level exposure to 111 common pollutants, including lead, mercury, PCBs and pesticides, and their association with otherwise unexplained liver disease in adults.

They found these pollutants in 60 percent or more of the study subjects with abnormal liver enzymes.

The association was significant even after adjusting for obesity, diabetes, race, sex and poverty, Cave said in a telephone briefing.

"These results indicate that there may be a previously unexpected role for environmental pollution in the rising incidents of liver disease in the U.S. population and, clearly, more work needs to be done," Cave said.

There are more than 90 forms of liver disease, which range from hepatitis to cirrhosis of the liver to fatty liver disease. According to the American Liver Foundation, chronic liver disease is the 10th leading cause of death in the United states, resulting in approximately $10 billion in annual healthcare costs.

Cases have been rising in the United States in step with rising rates of obesity, which can impair liver function.

Editing by Maggie Fox

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